Mixed Media

Documenting the Racial Divide

UB student Peter Johnson responds to a film about race with one of his own

Portrait of Peter Johnson.

By Ben Siegel (BA ’07)

“We’re going to tell our story in a way that’s going to be captivating, that’s going to draw people in.”
Peter Johnson

Whitney Dow’s 2014 documentary, “Whiteness Project,” made national headlines when the first installment, filmed in Buffalo, was released online. Dow’s experiment—to interview white Americans about their experience being white—had progressive intentions, but was nonetheless met with some pushback. A few critics pointed out that in discussing race and racism only with whites (in historically segregated Buffalo, no less), Dow’s experiment appeared one-sided. Others saw it as the beginning of a sobering discourse. Either way, people talked. 

Actor and filmmaker Peter Johnson, a media study graduate student at UB, knew one way he could respond: He made his own documentary. “The Blackness Project” answers Dow’s film with commentary from a cross-section of African-Americans and other people of color in Buffalo and beyond. In the film, which Johnson is producing with local director Korey Green, subjects offer personal stories that shine light on the institutions of racism and discrimination. “We talk about a lot of the hard-to-discuss issues that people don’t want to discuss in the open. The racial profiling: How does it make minorities feel?” says Johnson. 

Johnson and Green share their own experiences on-screen, too. Raised on the city’s predominantly black East Side, Johnson, 36, attended a private Catholic school in predominantly white North Buffalo—a contrast not lost on him. 

“I was exposed to the inner city, but I was also exposed to other races, other cultures. Even though I was the minority, and was very much aware of that, I grew up having white friends,” says Johnson. “I didn’t see [a] racial barrier.” 

A graduate of the New York Film Academy, Johnson also works on local stages as an actor and director, and produces film and theatre projects under the umbrella of his company, Xavier Productions. In his 2011 documentary short, “Together We Stand,” Johnson re-visited the 1958 University at Buffalo football team’s decision not to compete in the Tangerine Bowl once they learned that the team’s two black players would not be allowed to play. 

Johnson and Green plan to premier “The Blackness Project” this spring and submit it to festivals in hopes of eventual distribution. With more than 80 hours of footage, they’re considering making a second installment. But before that—more refinement, more editing, more work. “We’re going to tell our story in a way that’s going to be captivating, that’s going to draw people in,” Johnson says. And, they hope, that will keep the conversation going.